by KEVIN KNODELL
It isn’t easy to travel in South Sudan. It’s a harsh land that quickly changes from scorching deserts to inhospitable swamps. Supplying an army or a peacekeeping force in the country comes with its own special set of frustrations.
British Ministry of Defense just boosted the United Nations Mission in South Sudan with a deployment of a Royal Air Force C-130 Hercules. The planes will help peacekeepers resupply before the rainy season starts.
Troops serving with UNMISS have it rough. A civil war rages between soldiers loyal to Pres. Salva Kiir and those fighting for Riek Machar — the country’s rogue ex-vice president. Peacekeepers are trying to protect civilians caught in the middle.
According to UNMISS, the peacekeeping force is responsible for 112,590 people under its protection. But the fighting disrupts supply lines, making the tough job of moving supplies even more difficult. Then there’s the impending arrival of the rainy season.
The rains tend to start in the spring and can last for six months. The deluge turns dirt roads and airstrips into muddy sludge. Logistics will soon be a nightmare.
Before the British contribution, UNMISS had access to only a single C-130. It’s a problem in light of the coming storms.
“[The] RAF contribution will double the C-130 capacity,” UNMISS spokesperson Ariane Quintier told War Is Boring. “It is crucial as the rainy season has not started yet and the airstrip in Malakal is perfectly usable for a C-130.”
This is the first time the RAF has committed air assets to a U.N. mission in Africa. It’s not a permanent deployment.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence declined our request for comment, but UNMISS officials expect the Brits to stick around until about mid-April. The RAF will fly in supplies, vehicles and humanitarian aid that would otherwise be difficult to transport.
British flyers will deliver supplies to the U.N.’s facility in Malakal. The base is home to one of UNMISS’s largest protection of civilians — or POC — sites. It houses 21,368 civilians … and counting.
The town of Malakal sits in the disputed Upper Nile region and has been the scene of heavy fighting between government troops and Nuer rebels. Violence continues to drive civilians toward U.N. troops for protection.
The airport is a critical hub for moving supplies to the Upper Nile.
“Malakal is one of the only airports in the country [that has] a long enough airstrip to allow a C-130 to land,” Quintier said.
“Malakal is very hard to resupply during the rainy season, especially from Juba, which cannot reach Malakal by road,” she added. “The only option then becomes the Nile and barges.”
According to UNMISS, 60 percent of roads in South Sudan are unusable during the rainy season. And the rain doesn’t just cause problems getting around the country, it also causes flooding.
The rising water levels can make life in the POCs frustrating … and even dangerous.
When a South Sudanese barracks mutiny exploded into full blown civil war in 2013, both sides quickly began to prey on civilians. Ethnic militias looted homes and cleansed cities of rival groups. Refugees fled to U.N. bases for protection.
The peacekeepers’ mission changed practically overnight. Predatory militias and bandits gathered outside the gates. The peacekeepers no longer patrolled cities looking for troublemakers — they defended their bases as if under siege.
Thousands of men, women and children relied on them for protection. It was a job the U.N. hadn’t anticipated. The civilians were safe from violence, but the peacekeepers hadn’t built their bases to house thousands of South Sudanese families.
Military engineers hastily dug latrines and built make-shift shelters for the refugees using whatever supplies they could find. They had no idea how long the fighting would last, and certainly didn’t expect the civilians to stay for potentially years.
“POC sites have always been considered as a temporary solution to an emergency and a crisis,” Quintier said. “These sites have never been made to last, they do not respond to international standards in terms of space and sanitation among other things.”
Kiir and Machar’s feud wouldn’t likely end anytime soon. The war trudged into 2014, and the rainy season loomed. Military engineers once again set to work. They began digging rudimentary drainage systems for the camps.
But the rains came earlier than expected. The flooding was particularly bad at the U.N. camp at Tomping, where rain decimated its shelters. Worse, flooding washed through the camp’s make-shift latrines and spread human waste throughout the camp.
The water became a breeding pool for disease.
Doctors Without Borders criticized the UNMISS leadership for mishandling the crisis at Tomping. The organization accused aid officials and troops of “shocking indifference.”
Though peacekeepers shuttled Tomping’s residents to other camps, activists insisted they weren’t doing it fast enough. The ongoing war, limited resources and a constant stream of more civilians seeking shelter made the evacuation almost impossible.
Rains wreaked further havoc on bases all over the country. UNMISS aid coordinator Toby Lanzer posted videos of conditions in Malakal on his YouTube account. It depicted people living in waterlogged tents surrounded by rubbish.
Over time the rainy season dampened the fighting, and Kiir and Machar eventually signed a peace deal. But predictably, the rains stopped and the two sides resumed fighting.
Displaced South Sudanese have now lived in the POCs for more than a year. Fighters and bandits roam the country and fight over towns and villages, so many civilians have no interest in returning to their homes.
Quintier said that improving living conditions in the camps for all seasons is a top priority. She added that it’s a work in progress, and that the U.N. is diverting resources to the problem.
“In Bentiu and Malakal, both sites have been extended to respond to a growing number of arrivals as well as meet international standards,” she said.
The base in Bentiu is the largest POC in the country, housing 52,908 people. The camp’s population doubled after a gruesome battle for the city last April. Mongolian peacekeepers ferried residents from the city by truck as government and rebel forces raped and slaughtered their way through the town.
The people of South Sudan can survive the rain. They’ve done so for centuries — and the British aerial resupply missions should help. But the war is the biggest problem. That won’t change until South Sudanese leaders agree to end the killing.